This is undoubtedly one of the most challenging times I’ve seen for businesses in the UK. With Brexit negotiations creating an unprecedented level of uncertainty, leaders are faced with strategic and tactical decisions with no real sense of how they will be impacted when the two-year negotiation period for Article 50 comes to an end in March.
One of the elements of this picture that I don’t think receives enough attention is the fact that Brexit is currently just one of many significant challenges businesses in the UK are facing, albeit one of the biggest. Whether it’s retailers struggling with changing consumer behaviour, CEOs dealing with activist investors, or traditional corporates having their business models disrupted by new technologies, the ambiguity of Brexit is accentuating problems most organisations were already managing.
For business leaders, a combination of day-to-day challenges and concerns about Brexit is adding a huge amount of pressure to their job. Leaders typically like to look ahead and scenario plan, but for a lot of businesses this is near impossible given the current political climate. Indeed, last year a survey commissioned by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) revealed that 94 per cent of British businesses said planning is difficult because of a lack of information, whilst nearly half said the complexity of the information that was available was challenging.
The role of the leader
So how do leaders need to respond to this? Firstly, they need to ensure that they are taking a dispassionate look at their business, in particular at the areas which are most vulnerable to changes in market conditions, and taking corrective action, for example by reducing concentrations in clients or markets. At the same time, they need to keep scanning their external environment for the weak and strong signals of trends that represent threats and opportunities. Too often I see leaders under pressure hunkering down in the slog of operational management which leaves them little time and space for anticipating what is coming next.
Secondly, they need to recognise the key role they play in fostering an environment that is supportive, adaptive and robust during these times of instability. They must be creating urgency and momentum, while avoiding panic and anxiety. They need to recognise that no organisation can run at full tilt for an indefinite period so they must be sensitive enough to allow breathing space after sprints. Sustained pressure tends to convert hairline fractures in a team into full-blow chasms, so leaders need to keep a close eye on how their senior people work together and be ready to step in when required.
Thirdly, they need to ensure they are doing a good job at managing themselves. Staying close to their customers and employees is of course a key part of their role, but they need to be primarily conscious about their own energy management. It’s the organisational equivalent of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you.
There’s an additional angle on this which is crucial. Many, if not all, leaders have a strong drive to be perceived as competent and in control. It can therefore be a challenge admitting to employees, investors, or customers that they are struggling and don’t know the answer. Getting the balance right between showing vulnerability and demonstrating conviction is not easy. If either is overdone it can lead to others losing confidence in you, but for many leaders asking for help is where they struggle most.
Building a resilient workforce
Finally, it’s important that leaders encourage employees to develop their own resilience. Well-being interventions, such as mindfulness, exercise and healthy eating, can all play a positive part in helping employees coping strategies when experiencing stress or significant change.
That said, wellbeing is rarely enough. In our work with leaders on individual and organisational resilience, we help them take a broader and more sophisticated view of resilience, which enables them to take practical steps to develop it in themselves and their people. A resilient workforce is one that takes care of themselves in the face of aversity, while nurturing the right skills and mindset to adapt to and shape their environment.
The political storm we find ourselves in is leading to a lot of concern, anxiety and confusion amongst business leaders as they navigate these changes, and, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this will change for a while. It’s vital that leaders focus on resilience by addressing their own, as well as their employees’, wellbeing and implement strategies that hone the skills needed to survive, and thrive in such volatile times.